A DUI based on impairment through drug use in Virginia is not limited to people driving after using illegal drugs. A driver who has been prescribed medication by a doctor can face criminal DUI charges in Virginia for driving while impaired by drugs. This can result in a suspended license, expensive fines, a criminal record, and jail time.
Even drivers who do not feel impaired can be treated like a criminal if the police suspect the driver is impaired. The police officer may claim the driver failed field sobriety tests based on the officer's subjective observations. If you have been charged with a prescription drug DWI in Virginia, talk to your Virginia DUI/DWI defense attorney about your rights.
Prescription Drug DUI/DWI in Virginia
Under Virginia Code § 18.2-266(iii), it is unlawful for a driver to be “under the influence of any narcotic drug or any other self-administered intoxicant or drug of whatsoever nature, or any combination of such drugs, to a degree which impairs his ability to drive or operate any motor vehicle.”
A “drug of whatsoever nature” includes both illegal drugs, like heroin or cocaine, as well as prescribed medications. Drug DUIs also apply to over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that can impair a driver's ability to operate a motor vehicle.
Types of Medication That Can Impair Driving
Any type of medication can have both intended effects or side-effects that may impair a person's ability to safely operate a vehicle. However, some prescription medications come with an explicit warning not to be taken while driving, operating heavy machinery, or other restrictions.
Some of the most common types of prescription drugs that can impair drivers include the following.
- Sleep medication (Ambien or Lunesta)
- Painkillers and Opioids (OxyContin, Vicodin, or morphine)
- Antidepressants (Prozac or Wellbutrin)
- Opioids for substance abuse (Suboxone)
- Benzodiazepines (Xanax or Valium)
- Muscle Relaxants (Soma or Flexeril)
- Amphetamines (Benzedrine or Adderall)
Some of the reactions caused by some prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs include the following.
- Blurred vision
- Slower response times
- Inability to pay attention
- Loss of consciousness
If you have any question about whether your medication can impair your driving ability, talk to your pharmacist or doctor about the effects, side effects, and how drug combinations can affect your driving.
Driving On Prescription Drugs and Alcohol
Prescription drug DUI's often involve a combination of drugs and alcohol. A driver may be familiar with how one beer or one glass of wine affects them and they feel fine to drive after a drink or two with dinner. However, drug interactions can intensify the effects of alcohol. Even one drink while on certain medications can make impair a driver and make driving unsafe.
Can I get a drug DUI if I didn't know my medication affected my driving?
Drivers can be arrested and charged with a crime even if they did not know their medication could affect their driving. According to a study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, many drivers who recently used a potentially impairing prescription drug were not aware they could be driving impaired. Without these warnings, many drivers were not aware of the risks involved with impaired driving, including increased risk of accidents or involvement with criminal activity.
The law against impaired driving does not require that the prosecutor prove the driver knew he or she was impaired, only that the driver was impaired while driving. However, one defense in drug related DUI cases is that the driver was drugged without his or her knowledge.
How Police Determine Impairment by Prescription Drugs
There is generally no "legal limit" to prove a driver was impaired by prescription drugs. With alcohol, any driver with a blood alcohol level over the limit is “impaired” under the law, regardless of how well he or she was driving. With prescription drug DUI's, the prosecutor will try to prove impairment by using the arresting officer's testimony, arrest report, and a drug test.
Police reports may rely on subjective observations of impairment, including:
- Slurred speech,
- Bloodshot eyes,
- Pinpoint or non-reactive pupils,
- Slow response, or
- Impaired coordination.
The police may ask a suspected impaired driver to submit to standard field sobriety tests, including:
- Walk-and-Turn Test,
- One-Leg-Stand Test, and
- Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test.
Unfortunately, these tests are not always accurate and the police may report the driver “failed” the test, even when completely sober. Medical conditions, lack of proper instructions, roadside distractions, and nervousness can cause someone to appear to fail a roadside DWI test.
Before agreeing to these tests, drivers should know these field sobriety tests are not mandatory and drivers in Virginia can refuse these tests.
Prescription Drug Use Without a Prescription
Prescription drugs are often used by people who do not have a prescription. This may involve a friend or relative giving someone their own medication to help with pain, anxiety, or some other reason. Prescription medication use may also be associated with drug abuse. When a driver is arrested for a suspected drug DUI in Virginia, the driver may also face drug possession charges.
Controlled substances in Virginia include both legal and illegal drugs. Possession of a prescription medication without a valid prescription can be treated as drug possession, similar to possession of an illegal street drug. Under the Virginia Drug Control Act, it is unlawful for any person to knowingly or intentionally possess a controlled substance without a valid prescription. Depending on the type of prescription drug involved, possession of a controlled substance can be a felony offense in Virginia.
Charlottesville Prescription Medication DUI Defense Attorney
Drivers who are taking doctor-prescribed medicine can face criminal DWI charges even if they don't feel impaired. If you were arrested for a prescription drug DWI in Virginia, talk to an experienced Charlottesville drug DUI defense attorney about your case and how to keep your record clear. Contact attorney Thomas M. Wilson today for a free consultation.